On Reading “On Writing”

On WritingStephen King’s “On Writing” has been recommended and suggested so often I finally decided to read it. As with most How To Write books, I bought the actual book. For some reason, I prefer the physical book because they are easier to reference in the future. Or maybe I just like seeing those books sitting on my book shelf, and by virtue of their being there, I feel more like an actual writer.

It was an engaging memoir on writing, of how he, Mr. King, got started and it’s not surprising that he was interested in Sci-fi and horror and the supernatural from the time he was a little kid. It’s filled with humor and a bit of history, but at its heart, it’s a book “On Writing”. Not the usual how-to but a more general discussion of the subject.  It was one of the best books I’ve read on the subject.

A few things I took from it:

Just start writing. Do it every day. Set a goal and Just. Do. It. This is the closed door part. The part where you don’t show anyone what you’ve written. Just get it down. Start with a couple of ideas about what it is to be about, and let the characters take you where they will. Stephen King is a “pantzer” as opposed to a “planner” I think. He didn’t mention making any outlines and seemed to indicate that the work will suffer from too much plotting.

When finished with this, the first draft, put it away for at least six weeks. Do something else. Work on a new project or go fishing. But don’t look at that manuscript once.

After six weeks, pull it out and read through it. Then comes the second draft. It should be at least 10% smaller than the first draft. Take out unneeded junk and fix the other stuff, repeated words and omitted words and any other problems you see.

Here’s the part where we have to take different forks in the road. At this point, Stephen King gives the manuscript to his Ideal Reader (his wife) who gives him her very honest opinion. He listens and mostly agrees and makes the appropriate changes before sending it on to his editor. After that it’s in the agent’s hands I guess, who sells it to a publishing company, or probably sends it on to the same company that published all his other work. They schedule it up for release, and then the money starts rolling in.

It doesn’t work that way for most of us, who are reading On Writing, but nevertheless, the book is very educational, and is also encouraging. It’s worth reading.

Some other information I found useful:

Writers can be grouped into something like the Four Food Group Pyramid. The bottom and largest group are the bad writers. They have no talent for it, their interests lie in other areas. Give them all the creative writing classes in the world and they will still suck.

Up a level and the next largest group are the competent writers, all those at the office who can compose emails with proper sentences and punctuation, and then the good writers, those who write and actually make money at it and then — Ta Da! —  the genius writers. Those in their own class, born not made, “divine accidents”. You know who they are, Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner. (My favorite author, Jonathan Franzen, comes to mind.)

Is it possible to move from one group to another? Sometimes. The bad writers usually remain in their own basement of horridness, unable to claw their way upwards to a more respectable level but the competent writers can evolve upward into the good writers’ group with the proper amount of practice. Not training, practice. Mr. King does not specifically say that education is not necessary. To the contrary, a degree in English is an excellent way to launch a successful career, and Creative Writing classes and workshops can be fun and interesting, but not required.

Whatcha gotta do then, is get a schedule and stick to it, and write your brains out for the allotted amount of words per day. Not time, words. If it takes three hours to crank out 2,000 words on Tuesday and seven on Wednesday, sobeit. Eventually you will get better. And better and better.

Another thing. When you aren’t writing, read. Read everything. It’s what I’ve been doing lately. There is a suggested reading list in the back of On Writing. I chose three at random, and one from my list of classics to read before the end of 2012 (that didn’t work out too well, replace with “2013”). I also chose a book by Stephen King, The Dead Zone, because it is one of his older ones, and less science fiction-y than some, since this and horror in general are not my usual genre.

He also suggests reading a really awful book. Reading bad books is as helpful as reading good ones. Reading something you consider a real eye-roller serves a couple of purposes. First, it enforces the idea that you can at least write as well as this author, and it is a powerful reminder of what NOT to do. I chose Valley of The Dolls, by Jacqueline Suzanne. In fact, this book is mentioned in On Writing as a good example of literature of questionable value.

Ms. Suzanne reaped in plenty of profits with her tome. I first read it back in the sixties, but want to read it again with a more finely-tuned writer’s eye. If nothing else, it will provide a funny blog post. It brings to mind, 50 Shades of Grey which I blogged about earlier this year. Books like this may have changed over the years, but the premise is still there. Bring on the smut and they’ll keep readin’.  Why read a novel that is filled with deep characters, thoughtful descriptions and believable dialogue when I can get a trip back into the Red Room of Pain?

Here’s my complete reading list for the next month (or so):

  • End of Story by Peter Abrahams
  • One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
  • The Last Good Day by Peter Blauner
  • The Dead Zone by Stephen King
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Suzanne

8 thoughts on “On Reading “On Writing”

  1. I’ve heard so many good things about this book from both writers and non-writers.

    As someone that took up piano late in life, I think writing is like music in a lot of ways. By practicing and practicing you can make yourself pretty good — but probably not to the level of those who are geniuses (or savants).

    I recently read a piece that asked writers about “inspiration” and several talked about how they wrote for several hours a day without “distraction” — phone off. Internet disabled computer. Seems like a good habit to try and create.

    • Steve, I’d heard so many good things about it too and finally, after I’d thought I’d read as many How To Write books as one person could possibly absorb, I decided to go for it anyway.

      Self-imposed isolation is the key probably. But. Since this book was written in 1997, back then the amount of stuff that could distract was much less than it is today!

  2. The sticking to a schedule and just writing is so key. There are days when writing is the last thing I want to do, but oddly enough, my book won’t write itself (what’s up with that, anyway?…) So pluck away I do, even if only 500 words is the product. But nothing says it has to be a good 500 words…

    • Hey Carrie, good to see you here. Yeah some days are diamonds some days are stones. Some days I couldn’t do 500 words for nothing but just getting into the habit of sitting down and saying okay, here we go, establishes the discipline. Occasionally, it happens that you sit down, the words flow, and everything is right with the world.

  3. Excellent motivation to read the copy I have of this book on my shelf. I intended to read it long ago when I picked it up at Half Price Books…gasp…I couldn’t believe someone sold their copy! In hard cover too with the beautiful cover. To my good fortune they did and now I need to read and absorb it’s wisdom.

  4. Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book” describes just that. Adler was a man of arts and letters, editing Encyclopedia Britannica for 40 years. Robert Moser’s “Emerson: Mind on Fire” explains the methods and intricacies of formulating and delivering a speech from one of the great orators. Great reads.

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